GERARD HOWLIN: How a Brian Friel film calls to mind the many perils of magical politics

The late Brian Friel pictured at the celebration of his 80th birthday at The Abbey in 2009. Pic: Marc O'Sullivan

Unseemly ráméis has been coming from the grandstands of the Irish establishment about the limitations of new politics, writes Gerard Howlin.

"And the duck that they stole, it can swim” is the half-hopeful but dire prediction of the sister in The Magic Sovereign, a film written by Brian Friel shown yesterday at the MacGill Summer School.

Two men, charming chancers, row away from shore in the boat they bought with the magic sovereign of the title.

Gleeful at the gullibility of the brother played by Joe McPartlan — and they think of his sister too, played by Rosaleen Linehan — the boyos pull on the oars with gusto.

Standing, looking at the pair disappearing over the water, the brother who is a gormless layabout is alarmed because “that boat will never take them to the far side”.

But “it will carry them half way won’t it” says Linehan’s character with the deadpan, of a woman who has sold a coffin ship for a sovereign to strangers, who thought they had swindled her. And she has unfinished business. The duck they stole will swim home.

Like Boris Johnson, who pronounced that he was in favour of having his cake and eating it, Rosaleen Lenihan’s character may look harmless but she is hard, and happy to send men who underestimated her to a watery grave. She has their sovereign, and she will have her duck as well.

There is something of that pair of sauntering, singing lads, palming ‘magic sovereigns’ off on peasants that characterise several classes of politicians this sweltering hot week. The MacGill proceedings would usually succeed the Dáil, but in a burst of not being told what to do by Government, the latter sat on regardless.

I am glad they aren’t told what to do by the Government any more, but they should have had the cop-on to make the point and then go home, promptly. The quality of Government is inestimably better, after a few days paddling at the water’s edge, in sunshine. But it was not to be. Enda Kenny’s so-called leadership crisis was caused by too long an enclosure in Leinster House. If the man had been allowed out, surely he wouldn’t have appointed James Reilly to anything? But thankfully, tomorrow will be the finale. Then no more until September.

Long periods of reflection, including times of complete rest, are essential.

Amidst the speeches, in all the summer schools this year, MacGill’s exposition of the too-often overlooked short stories of Brian Friel, bring an alacrity, unmatched by most modern orators.

Brian Friel
Brian Friel

Seemingly a comedy, the 1979 BBC production of The Magic Sovereign is an image of Ireland, after a John Hinde postcard. We are unprepared for the brutal cynicism and raw survival instincts of the sole female in the cast of characters. What could be more charming, more stage-Irish than Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem as the stage Irish wide boys? Were we ever so gullible? Were we ever really so top o’ the mornin’?

The magic sovereign — like Leprechaun economics — goes back a long way. People like that required representation, and it is a tribute to our democracy that they usually got what they deserved and still do.

The twist in Friel’s tale, as more satire than comedy, is that you can’t think of the magic sovereign without remembering apartments bought off the plans in Bulgaria. And he wrote that story 37 years ago.

Twenty years before that, before his great plays were staged, he was writing short stories for The New Yorker, bringing universal meaning to local tales.

As our leaders fan out across the country to opine, we should remember that there is nothing especially new, or singular in our current condition. Those four characters, in the 17 minutes of film, are as good a summary of several of the national archetypes, as I have seen.

Unseemly ráméis has been coming from the grandstands of the Irish establishment about the limitations of new politics. These are people, in essence, who traded on the passing off of magic sovereigns for years, on peasants, and are now utterly incandescent that the boat they are rowing is rotten and sinking.

Even the damned duck they tucked under their oxter in the get-away, is clamouring overboard and swimming for shore.

The bitterness of the invective about the folly of a legislature that cannot be controlled by a government, is comical. It exposes — in both left and right — a common theme. There was always a better sort to tell the rest what to do. The more successful marinated their authority in syrup and storytelling. Others, more self-believing and less willing to condescend, simply carried on the tradition of their formative influences from the pulpit, albeit for ends unauthorised in any catechism.

The harrumphing about the need for authoritative government, the shambles so-called of what they call new politics in disparaging tones, is a joke.

But the joke is on them.

The people voted as they did and, like Rosaleen Linehan’s character, cast a cold eye on the consequences, because trust was a debased coin.

The institutions of the State, at a critical moment, were shown to be deeply inept at best, and complicity indolent at worst. The idea of a better before-the-here-and-now is preposterous. As preposterous as the smug, too-confident chancers played by Clancy and Makem.

Of course these characters are composites. We should not allow ourselves the false self-satisfaction of neatly, morally dividing them up into a ‘them’ and ‘us’. No, that would be to believe old rhetoric that continues on as part of new politics. A lot has changed, but not everything. Make-believe is endemic in every generation. Buying apartments off the plans in Bulgaria, or several nearer home, and blaming banks now for giving you money then, is part of that.

The magic sovereign as currency, is eternal myth, but widely believed. So are the assumptions of charlatans who, being so successful for so long, come to believe in their own luck.

That is the indignation you hear in their voice now. The lucky general of lore, is usually just lucky.

Hard currency keeps its true value. The gormless brother happily believed that the sovereign would keep its magic charm and return to his pocket every time he spent it.

On water charges, we have signed up for a similar economic programme. Brexit is just a bigger pile of the same fool’s gold. It’s a recurring condition in which, like a troupe of jobbing actors in a fit-up company, we play different roles at different times.

But the insight of the master, as they call Friel in Donegal, is unsurpassed. On Sunday last, Linehan, with Bríd Ní Neachtain and Bríd Brennan — the three Mundy sisters in the original Field Day production of Dancing at Lughnasa — recalled its making.

I remember viscerally the explosive moment when those Ballybeg women ignited in dance on the stage. It doesn’t fundamentally change anything, but the prism of the storyteller makes everything fundamentally more understandable.


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